Monday, November 4, 2013

The University of Virginia, and the Future of Higher Education

The Rotunda at UVA
As I mentioned in my previous post, my daughter is a second year student at the University of Virginia (UVA).

Last weekend my wife and I had the opportunity to visit her in Charlottesville, and we had a terrific time.

Originally designed by Thomas Jefferson, the UVA campus is one of the most beautiful college settings in the country, if not the world.  Blessed with bucolic natural surroundings, and a multi-billion endowment, visiting UVA offers visitors an incredible experience.

Building activity is constant both on campus and the surrounding areas.  UVA is putting the finishing touches on a new set of dormitories that will rival most hotels and resorts.  Meanwhile, on the outskirts of campus, signs outside construction sites advertise a wide variety of new apartment facilities that will soon be available that will feature a wide variety of plush amenities.

In short, although much of the country is mired in a slow growth economy, the UVA area seems booming.

So it was disquieting to read in the New York Times on the plane ride home that Clay Christensen, a widely respected Harvard Business School professor, thinks that the academic model that UVA and other top universities offer is rapidly becoming obsolete.

In an article co-authored with Michael Horn, Christensen thinks that on-line education presents a bigger challenge than most college administrators are willing to admit.

Christensen and Horn argue that the cost of higher education has become prohibitive to many working families. Stories abound of students graduating college mired in massive debts that they will spend years repaying.

At a time when younger students are comfortable with digital learning, they believe that the traditional four year college experience will soon be either shortened or eliminated as classes are offered on the internet for little or no costs.

Here's an excerpt from the article: education is a disruptive innovation — one that introduces more convenient and affordable products or services that over time transform sectors. Yet many bricks-and-mortar colleges are making the same mistake as the once-dominant tall ships: they offer online courses but are not changing the existing model. They are not saving students time and money, the essential steps to disruption. And though their approach makes sense in the short term, it leaves them vulnerable as students gravitate toward less expensive colleges.

Christensen and Horn recognize that college is more than just four years of classroom experience.  However, they argue that on-line learning will fundamentally change the college experience, particularly at a time when costs are becoming prohibitive:

The experience that so many of us remember fondly — those bridge years from childhood to functioning adult — is already one that only a minority of students enjoys. According to the Census Bureau, just 30 percent of all beginning students live on a college campus. But it’s unlikely that the residential experience will disappear. Counterintuitive as it may seem, online instruction may mean even more students benefit from the collegial spirit, though one that looks quite different from the residential experience of today. 

Right now, some students who want to live on campus find it prohibitively expensive; some who would rather commute live too far away to do so. As online learning evolves, students should be able to customize their experience with what they need and can afford. This kind of unbundling has occurred in countless industries. 

Given the wonderful experience that we had just experienced at UVA, I was tempted to just dismiss the Christensen and Horn article. On-line education has been widely touted as a challenge to higher education, yet the actual completion rate of students signing up for courses on the internet has been tiny.

Put another way: it may be boring to sit in a large lecture hall listening to a professor, but it sure beats sitting in front a computer in your home doing the same thing.

I do agree, however, that some academic majors are threatened by on-line learning.

Shelling out over $100,000 for an education in engineering or computer science may be difficult, but the likelihood of finding employment after graduation remains favorable.  Majoring in other subjects - no matter how fascinating or intellectually challenging - is becoming a more difficult sale, no matter how much colleges try to convince students and their parents.

Saturday's New York Times carried a front page article commenting on the challenges that programs in the humanities face in today's challenging economic environment.

The article quotes UVA English Professor Mark Edmundson - author of a recent book titled Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education (Bloomsbury USA; 1 edition (August 20, 2013)) - as to why he is convinced that majoring in the humanities remains an appropriate course for students that share his passion:

Some professors flinch when they hear colleagues talking about the need to prepare students for jobs. 

“I think that’s conceding too quickly,” said Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia. “We’re not a feeder for law school; our job is to help students learn to question.”

His university had 394 English majors last year, down from 501 when he arrived in 1984, but Professor Edmundson said he does not fret about the future. “In the end, we can’t lose,” he said. “We have William Shakespeare.” 

But for students worrying about their own future, Shakespeare can seem an obstacle to getting on with their lives. 

It should be interesting in the years ahead to see what is in store for higher education in this country.